I’m fascinated by the strides made in helping autistic children using animals as therapy. Somehow, the connection they can make with an animal unlocks something within them that cannot otherwise be reached using therapy or drugs.
The following story from the Mirror News tells the tale of Ben, a stray tuxie cat, who opened up the world of George, an 11-year-old boy suffering from autism.
By Charlotte Ward | Mirror News
Mum Julia Romp had spent years trying to get close to her son. Then a cat called Ben showed her how but when Ben disappeared, Julia knew she had to find him or risk losing her boy again.
Julia Romp will never forget the moment she first spied a scrawny, sad-looking black and white tom cat stalking through her back garden.
I was shocked by the state of him, she says. He was clearly feral. His fur was hanging down in clumps and he had hardly any hair on his tail at all. He was skin and bones and looked close to death.
Julia, 37, a lifelong animal lover, was so horrified by his appearance that she was determined to tempt him into her garden shed so she could feed him. And she reported back to her 11-year-old autistic son George as part of her tireless attempts to capture his imagination.
It was always a struggle to get George to be interested in anything, says Julia, a single mum from Isleworth in Middlesex. Hed been diagnosed with autism and ADHD at nine and was unable to express himself properly.
He hated being around other people and if I took him out hed lay his head on the pavement and shout. When I went to supermarkets I had to put a blanket over his pushchair to cover his head or hed scream.
People judged us and said I was a bad mother. But George is over-sensitive to smell and noise and he would spend his whole time wanting to get well away from humans and what he viewed as nasty people. He spent most of his early years in tents in the living room, hallway and bedroom. They were the only places he felt safe. Id talk to him constantly but I never knew what was getting through.
So when Julia, who works for Hounslow Animal Welfare, took George to see the cat she was surprised by his reaction particularly as hed never shown an interest in any of their family pets before. He even gave Ben a new name. Baboo, George said. Hes playing hide and seek! Julia took the cat to the RSPCA. But when she and George returned to visit him, she wasnt prepared for what they both found.
Wed left this feral animal but now we were greeted by this sweet little cat. Even more astonishing was how George treated him.
Normally, he could not bear to look anything in the eye, but he walked straight up to the cage and gazed at the cat. The cat stared right back. They seemed equally smitten, says Julia.
He wants to come home with me, George said in a high-pitched voice that Id never heard before. I was stunned and immediately agreed.
They visited several more times before the RSPCA was ready to release the cat to them and Julia was amazed by the effect it was having on her son. He decided the cat was called Baboo or Ben and kept asking me when he could come home. When Baboo arrived he was like a different boy. He kept checking on him and talking to him.
I started to talk back in my own version of the high-pitched voice and was thrilled when George started to get more and more expressive. He was using his imagination and communicating. It was such a breakthrough.
It wasnt just Georges vocabulary that was improving. Over the next few years he grew more and more affectionate towards his mum.
Id never had a hug from George. If I ever tried to hug him hed curl into a ball. But after Ben came along he started to tell me that he loved me and he rubbed up to me like a cat to give me a cuddle. It just moved me to tears.
Suddenly, there was all this love and laughter and Georges teachers said he was doing better at school.
After all the years Id worried sick about him it was a lovely change.
But in September last year, just days into a trip to Egypt with George, Julia received a devastating phone call from her mother in England. Ben had gone missing.
Telling George was heartbreaking. He just looked at me and said, Take me home. I knew I had to do everything I could to find Ben.
The frantic mum immediately flew back to Britain and went straight into action, printing posters, searching the streets for any sign of Ben, calling local police stations, vets and animal centres in the desperate hope that someone had found him.
But at home she could do nothing about the traumatic effect it was having on George. Day by day he was retreating back into his shell.
The baby voice was gone and so were the cuddles, says Julia. George sat in his room and wouldnt talk to me. He would not lift a fork to eat, his face was moody and he would stand looking out of the window with big tears rolling down his cheeks.
The only thing hed tell me was that he had pains in his heart.
It broke my heart, too, and I used to run out into the bathroom and put a towel over my face to try and stop him hearing my sobs.
When Id composed myself Id go back and tell him: Dont worry. Well get Ben back soon. Hes just gone too far away with friends, but Im going to find him.
Julia investigated every black-and-white cat sighting and spent hours scouring streets and parks.
She persuaded her local pet shop to put leaflets in peoples carrier bags and even stood outside her local supermarket every day, begging people to help her find Ben.
I did it all day long from when George went to school until 3pm when I picked him up.
The council told me I was breaking the law by sticking posters to lampposts so I told them they should arrest me and take me to court at least Id get in the paper and get some publicity for my search!
Over the next few weeks Julia was inundated by calls.
She would receive up to 20 sightings a day and was touched by peoples kindness. I realized I wasnt alone. People did care, she says.
I attended to lots of dead cats, which was sad.
But I couldnt bear to leave them. Id wrap them in towels and take them to the vets to see if they were chipped. Then I would go and break the news to the families. It was very traumatic.
After three months of searching, Julia finally received the phone call she had been waiting for. It was just four days before Christmas.
A lady called Alison told me that she lived in Brighton and she had my cat, Julia recalls.
We lived 70 miles away there was no way Ben could have travelled that far. But she was adamant. She had already checked Bens micro chip. Julia got to the house as fast as she could.
As soon as I walked in, Ben came out like a ballerina, tip-toeing across the room to climb on me, recalls Julia. I was just in floods of tears.
With Ben in the cat-carrier, Julia went home. When she arrived George had a huge smile on his face.
Hello Mummy. Hello Baboo! he said. Ben went to Brighton because they have the best fish and chips in the world.
Julia said: Someone could tell me youve won 8million on the lottery but it wouldnt come close to how I felt at that moment.
Our lives then just fell right back into place again. She has no regrets. I had to find Ben, she says.
It wasnt just a case of buying George a new cat. There was something about Ben that touched him. I think it was the fact that at first Ben was feral and difficult a bit like George felt.
It is just over a year since Bens disappearance and Julia says: We couldnt be happier. We have Ben back and George is happy. And that is all that matters.